PS 132 – The Finger Lock

      A’ Ghlas Mheur

      A’ Ghleus Mheur

Primary Sources

P A’ Ghlas Mheur / A bagpipe lament P: 42
C2 Glass Mhoier C2.48: 108
H ’Ghlas Mheur / lock on fingers H.5: 10v
D1 A Ghlass Mheur / The Finger Lock D1.2: 7
K1 A Ghlas Mhiar / The Finger Lock K1.22: 61
SC Glas Mhir SC.33
Angus MacKay, ‘Specimens of Canntareachd’ (c. 1854), no. 33

Notes on Gaelic Titles

A’ Ghlas Mheur / A’ Ghleus Mheur Glaisvair 1778A’ ghlas mheur / A bagpipe lament P; Glais-mheur 1785Glass Mhoier C2; A Ghlais-Mheur 1804; ’Ghlas Mheur / lock on fingers H; A Ghlass Mheur / The Finger Lock D1; A Ghlas Mhiar / The Finger Lock K1; Glas Mhir SC. The spellings ‘Glaisvair’ and ‘Glais-mheur’ suggest that the anonymous transcriber who provided the English translation ‘lock on fingers’ in about 1815 introduced or perpetuated a corruption, mistaking gleus for glas (R. D. Cannon, ‘Gaelic names of pibrochs: a classification’. Scottish Studies 34, 2000–2006: section 7.3, pp 40–42). Earlier sources only give English expressions like ‘a bagpipe lament’ or ‘a favourite piece’ (I.I. MacInnes, The Highland bagpipe: the impact of the Highland Societies of London and Scotland, 1781–1844. M. Litt. Thesis, Edinburgh University, 1988: p. 232). If the title had previously been understood as A’ Ghleus Mheur, meaning ‘The Finger Test/Trial/Preparation’, then gleus possessed a wide range of meanings to eighteenth-century pipers, including: 1) tuning phrases a couple of bars long; 2) short pieces to settle the pipe and player (such as PS 50 A Glase, PS 127 A Glass and PS 146 A Glas); and 3) a large-scale work (the present tune), so named possibly because it focuses on a particular finger movement or, perhaps more likely, in response to a popular story involving a piper’s fingers. For texts and other concordances see A.M. MacDonald, The relationship between pibroch and Gaelic song: its implications on the performance style of the pibroch ùrlar. MLitt Thesis, Edinburgh University, 1995: pp. 197–214.

Roderick Cannon (2009), rev. Barnaby Brown 2015

Archive Recordings

1953 Pipe Major William MacLean
1964 Calum Johnston

Other Material

2012 William Donaldson: Set Tunes Notes

2013 Simon Chadwick: notes and arrangement for early clarsach

7 thoughts on “PS 132 – The Finger Lock

  1. Simon,

    ” “A” in CC’s titles could be English indefinite article, since other titles mix English and Gaelic”

    I am unable to find any titles in the indexes provided by Colin Campbell which mix English and Gaelic, supporting the notion that ‘A’ could be the English indefinite article ‘a’ and not the Gaelic ‘A(n)’ meaning ‘The’.

    The only ones which might be called ‘mixed’ would be where the word ‘lament’ or ‘Salute’ follows a Gaelic name.
    These are not true ‘macaronics’ however.

    In general, it seems that the medieval argumentative practise of applying ‘Occam’s Razor’ (not assuming more than is necessary; adopting the simplest explanation) is being by-passed in the attempt to maintain that Campbell was mistaken in his titles and really meant ‘a tuning phrase’ when he wrote ‘A Glas’, The variant spelling ‘Glase’ could also have come from another collection, as there is evidence this is, in part, a compilation.

  2. In the beginning was the Gaelic
    And the Gaelic was A’ gjlas mheur
    Then cameth the translation into English
    And the English was The Finger Lock
    And it was written by men of Argyll
    Into their Fencible tunes, along with the others;
    War or Peace, Glengarry’s march, Breadalane’s march
    And the year was 1783.

  3. It’s possible that the English indefinite article was mingled with the gaelic word ‘Glas’ in ‘A Glas’, but there are four examples of it in Campbell’s index and names, suggesting a coherent practice. And the ‘A’ also appears in other collections such as Patrick MacDonald’s which support the probability it is indeed gaelic.

  4. What does ‘A Ghlas’ mean?

    There are four tunes with the enigmatic name ‘A Glas’, all in the Nether Lorne MS, although one, ‘A Glas Mheur’, is found elsewhere and is well-known.

    The notion that the name refers to a tuning exercise has gained currency, and can be traced to Bunting’s work on Irish harp music, where he uses the word ‘glas’ and ‘gleus’ in a manner that could lead to confusion (Bunting not being a gaelic speaker). ‘Gleus’ refers to tuning, and in the collection of Angus MacKay there is a piece, ‘Deuchain gleus’ or tuning flourish.

    However, there are compelling reasons to discount this theory, before it becomes an accepted ‘truth’.

    1) Grammatical: the prefix ‘A’ means ‘the’, and it is improbable that four tunes, all named ‘The Tuning Prelude’ would appear in the same collection, since ‘the’ denotes a particular or singular state or thing.

    Also, since Campbell recorded four instances of tunes named ‘A Glas’, it must be assumed all four are mistakes for ‘gleus’ – Campbell wrote ‘Glas’ when he should have written ‘Gleus’ four times. This seems a large assumption.

    2) Linguistic: it is well established that ‘Glas’ means a joining, with associated meanings of lock, or grip.
    It also appears to have had some colloquial use in the past, when Gaelic was spoken widely in the Highlands. Dwelly’s Dictionary records some of this, notably the phrase ‘A glas ghuib’ or ‘mouth lock’, which was used to mean to shut someone up; literally ‘I put the mouth-lock on him.’

    3) Cultural: The idea of a ‘grip’ or special handshake indicating membership, status, or solidarity was widespread in the 18th century; examples being the Masonic grip, and the Horseman’s grip – both signifying a degree of attainment. In this respect, Dr. Roderick Ross’s talk to the Piobaireachd Society mentioning ‘The Finger Lock’ as a type of handshake between clansmen before battle – a tradition he claimed to have heard from Jockan macPherson, son of Calum Piobaire – may be illuminating.

    4) Historical: There is, in David Murray’s book ‘ Music of the Highland Regiments’ p. 217, an order book from the late 18th century of The Argyll Fencibles which lists the tunes to be played by the piper for various events, and ‘A Glas Mheur’ (The Finger Lock) is for Reveille, along with ‘War or Peace’, ‘Glengarry’s March’, and ‘Lord Breadalbane’s March’. It seems unlikely that a tune called ‘the tuning piece’ would be found in such martial company.

    Allan MacDonald, in his treatise on the relation between Pibroch and song, found the words to a drinking song which was sung to the same tune, ‘A Glas Mheur’, suggesting it was pretty well known to drinkers – again, not the sort of company to chose a tuning prelude for their music.

    The Transactions of The Gaelic Society of Inverness , Coronation Edition, published a paper on the Rankins of Mull, a notable family of hereditary pipers who gave up teaching around 1757. They had a story about this tune; that it was given to one of their pupils by a supernatural being (one of the ‘Sidhe’) while he was learning but had not quite got the hang of how to play; when he performed this piece, it was remarked that ‘the grip has come into his fingers’, meaning that he had attained mastery.

    Since this tradition can be dated back so far, and since the meaning imputed to the name ‘A Glas Mheur’ accords with the idea of attainment connected with ‘the Grip’ mentioned earlier, I feel the suggestion that it means a tuning prelude is improbable; and likewise with the other three tunes. Rather, they all commemorate a forgotten gesture which we may never fully know.

      • ” I.I. MacInnes, The Highland bagpipe: the impact of the Highland Societies of London and Scotland, 1781-1844. M. Litt. Thesis, Edinburgh University. (1988), p. 232, considers that Donald MacDonald (D0) coined the English name ‘The Finger Lock’ which is now conventional: prior to him we find only expressions like ‘a favourite piece’ ”

        The mention of ‘The Finger Lock’ in the Duty Tunes of The Argyll Fencibles, 1783 (see p.216 David Murray’s book ‘The Music of the Highland Regiments’) predates the above estimate by at least 40 years. Moreover, it is in the company of ‘War or Peace’ which suggests it could have had martial associations as early as 1746, which is the earliest mention of this latter piece (see The letter of Spanish John).

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